The English Mastiff's ancestor the Pugnaces Britanniae was a fearless predator, now sadly extinct. It is possible that the Mastiff owes his origin to some remote ancestor of alien strain. The Assyrian kings possessed a large dog of decided Mastiff type, and used it in the hunting of lions. It is supposed by many historians that the breed was introduced into early Britain by the adventurous Phoenician traders who, in the sixth century B.C., voyaged to the Scilly Islands and Cornwall to barter their own commodities in exchange for the useful metals. Knowing the requirements of their barbarian customers, these early merchants from Tyre and Sidon are believed to have brought some of the larger pugnaces, which would be readily accepted by the Britons to supplant, or improve, their courageous but undersized fighting dogs.
In Anglo-Saxon times every two villeins were required to maintain one of these dogs for the purpose of reducing the number of wolves and other wild animals. This would indicate that the Mastiff was recognised as a capable hunting dog; but at a later period his hunting instincts were not highly esteemed, and he was not regarded as a peril to preserved game; for in the reign of Henry III. the Forest Laws, which prohibited the keeping of all other breeds by unprivileged persons, permitted the Mastiff to come within the precincts of a forest, imposing, however, the condition that every such dog should have the claws of the fore-feet removed close to the skin.
The name Mastiff was probably applied to any massively built dog. It is not easy to trace the true breed amid the various names which it owned. Molossus, Alan, Alaunt, Tie-dog, Bandog (or Band-dog), were among the number. The names Tie-dog and Bandog intimate that the Mastiff was commonly kept for guard, but many were specially trained for baiting bears, imported lions, and bulls.
There is constant record of the Mastiff having been kept and carefully bred for many generations in certain old English families. One of the oldest strains of Mastiffs was that kept by Mr. Legh, of Lyme Hall, in Cheshire. They were large, powerful dogs, and longer in muzzle than those which we are now accustomed to see. Another old and valuable strain was kept by the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth. It is to these two strains that the dogs of the present day trace back.
Mr. Woolmore's Crown Prince was one of the most celebrated of Mastiffs. He was a fawn dog with a Dudley nose and light eye, and was pale in muzzle, and whilst full credit must be given to him for having sired many good Mastiffs, he must be held responsible for the faults in many specimens of more recent years. Unfortunately, he was indiscriminately bred from, with the result that in a very short time breeders found it impossible to find a Mastiff unrelated to him.
It is to be deplored that ever since his era there has been a perceptible diminution in the number of good examples of this fine old English breed, and that from being an admired and fashionable dog the Mastiff has so declined in popularity that few are to be seen either at exhibitions or in breeders' kennels.
At the Crystal Palace in 1871 there were as many as sixty-three Mastiffs on show, forming a line of benches two hundred yards long, and not a bad one among them; whereas at a dog show held twenty-five years later, where more than twelve hundred dogs were entered, not a single Mastiff was benched.
The difficulty of obtaining dogs of unblemished pedigree and superlative type may partly account for this decline, and another reason of unpopularity may be that the Mastiff requires so much attention to keep him in condition that without it he is apt to become indolent and heavy. Nevertheless, the mischief of breeding too continuously from one strain such as that of Crown Prince has to some extent been eradicated, and we have had many splendid Mastiffs since his time. Special mention should be made of that grand bitch Cambrian Princess, by Beau. She was purchased by Mrs. Willins, who, mating her with Maximilian (a dog of her own breeding by The Emperor), obtained Minting, who shared with Mr. Sidney Turner's Beaufort the reputation of being unapproached for all round merit in any period.